Two men and two women stand outside a bus in D.C. with the Capitol dome in the background. The two men look at the bus door. They wear surgical masks. They wear yellow t-shirts and jeans, one wears a safety vest. Another woman looks on with her arms folded. She wears a yellow t-shirt, a white sweater and jeans. Another woman faces away,looking in the bus door. She wears dark shorts and a dark t-shirt. She wears a red backpack.
Volunteers help immigrants as they arrive in Washington, DC on Aug. 26 after being bussed across the country from Texas.(Nathan Posner/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)
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Maryuri embarked on her three-month journey from Venezuela to the U.S. in July 2022, crossing nine borders on crutches with a broken foot.

She traveled with her son, now 9 years old. Their path included traversing the often deadly Darién Gap between Colombia and Panama. 

She fled an economic crisis that left her unable to afford basic necessities like food and antibiotics, under the shadow of the Venezuelan government’s human rights abuses. Public Integrity is not publishing Maryuri’s full name to protect the safety of her and her family. 

Soon after arriving in Texas in October, Maryuri and her son boarded a bus bound for D.C. where she hoped “to prosper, not just survive.” 

Instead, Maryuri said she has struggled to access quality food, stable and clean housing, work opportunities and affordable health care because of her migrant status.

Maryuri and her son are among at least 9,400 Latin American migrants who have been voluntarily bused to D.C. from Texas and Arizona in the past year. The approximately 12% who stay in the city face similar challenges as Maryuri, according to advocacy groups, which are pushing for more long-term solutions.

“We are being penalized for being poor and this goes against the definition of sanctuary that this city supposedly claims to be,” Maryuri told the D.C. Council on Feb. 23.

Temporary solutions, long-term needs

The Migrant Services and Supports Act passed late last year authorized D.C.’s mayor to establish programs for the arriving migrants, including the Office of Migrant Services. The new division supports bus reception, immediate care of new arrivals, temporary housing and, if desired, transportation to other destinations.

The city should “absolutely” have an office and accompanying legislation that provides services to migrants, said Eli Johnson, executive director of Congregation Action Network, which has been working with the migrants since the first buses arrived. However, the current system “is very focused on short-term emergency services and not long-term resettlement services,” Johnson said. 

The act bars those eligible for aid through the Office of Migrant Services from resources provided to unhoused people in the district under homeless services law. This includes long-term housing and childcare vouchers.

“There should be no immigration-based restrictions on any services in the city,” Johnson said. 

An emergency amendment to the migrant services law was enacted in late April to clarify who is eligible for aid, require written denials and set shelter safety standards. But these policies are set to expire later this summer. A proposed extension is awaiting congressional review.

“We are still evaluating what a permanent support system for migrants coming to D.C. should look like,” said Councilmember Robert White, who introduced the legislation. 

“Dirty and dangerous” housing

After arriving last fall, Maryuri and her son moved into one of the three shelters the city set up for migrants with children. These facilities reached capacity on April 26, with about 1,250 people across 370 families, according to city officials. 

The city is keeping the shelters closed despite having open rooms, said Madhvi Venkatraman, a core organizer with Migrant Solidarity Mutual Aid Network, which was formed in response to the buses. MSMAN reported the facilities now house 359 families.

Venkatraman estimated that there are about 20 migrant families in Washington currently without housing. 

“There are definitely a bunch of families sleeping in cars or some that are out in the streets that we don’t know of because not everybody knows [about MSMAN],” she said.

Those who are staying in the family shelters have experienced “dirty and dangerous” conditions like bed bugs and mold, Maryuri said. 

The food is sometimes raw or rotten, she said. Maryuri and her son have experienced stomach aches, diarrhea and hair loss. 

Woman speaks to District online hearing. She has long brown hair and brown eyes.
Maryuri, a migrant from Venezuela speaks to the D.C. Council on Feb. 23.

“I live without appetite and without energy due to the malnutrition that we are experiencing in the [shelter] due to the poor quality of the food we receive,” Maryuri told the council in February.

But council members, including White, who visited the shelters in March saw a different picture. He said the rooms he was shown were clean and OMS staff “made it sound like they had responded to issues with food” and other necessities. 

“But the fact that what I saw on my visit contrasts so strongly with what I’ve heard directly from migrants and advocates makes me believe the emergency legislation is even more important to ensure our agencies are clear on the services and resources they are required to provide,” White said. 

Shelter residents told Johnson that the visiting council members were taken to a room that had been cleaned in anticipation of the visit. It was made to look “much better than what the migrants are actually living in,” Johnson said.

Migrants without families rely on short stays at homeless shelters and volunteers’ houses, Venkatraman said. For long-term options, advocacy groups try to find cheap apartments. Venkatraman said MSMAN sometimes pays the first month’s rent, furnishes apartments and even co-signs leases. But that’s not sustainable in a city with housing costs 50% higher than the national average. 

“We can’t put up people indefinitely in housing, we don’t have the resources,” Venkatraman said.

Employment barriers

Finding a job that will cover D.C.’s high cost of living has been a struggle for many migrants, Johnson said. Most lack the permits required to work in the U.S. 

Those who work without authorization are vulnerable to unhealthy conditions and wage theft, which MSMAN has seen “rampant amounts of,” Venkatraman said. 

While the district offers a limited purpose ID for residents who do not have a social security number, Venkatraman said many recent migrants do not have the required documentation. That means they can’t work, open bank accounts, sign leases, apply for health insurance or get married — which can be important for asylum applications. 

“It is truly an uphill battle,” Venkatraman said. 

“There’s upfront issues of conditions and the services [the district is] not providing, but the scarier, bigger issue is there’s no long-term plan for these folks,” she said.

No line item in the D.C. budget accounts for the Office of Migrant Services, Venkatraman said, so the services are being funded on contingency. This offers less transparency and is unreliable — shelters and services could abruptly end, Venkatraman said. The mayor’s proposed budget for the next fiscal year does not include funding for OMS.

In response to requests for comment, a spokesperson from the D.C. Department of Human Services said all statements regarding OMS are currently on hold.

Refugees’ “only option”

While buses continue to arrive in Washington, it is not the only city struggling to accommodate migrants. New York City Mayor Eric Adams recently implemented plans to transport willing migrants to locations outside of the city. On May 23, he announced a court filing seeking to suspend the long-standing “right to shelter” mandate that requires the city to provide temporary accommodations to anyone seeking it. Chicago officials have resorted to using police stations and community centers to temporarily house hundreds of people. 

Despite the recent expiration of Title 42 — a COVID-19 era policy that allowed the U.S. to expel asylum seekers without due process — many migrants will still not qualify for asylum in the U.S. because a new regulation requires anyone who passes through another country to seek refuge there first.

“It’s extra important that local jurisdictions provide services to people even if they’re not here with authorization,” Johnson said. “Because we’re turning away refugees en masse at the border, so this is people’s only option.”

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Ileana Garnand (they/them) is CPI's 2022-2023 Charles Lewis American University Fellow. They are currently...